What does it mean to make it in the north? In this series, we will be featuring local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. In this instalment, we meet Tanya Colonna, CEO of the medical tech-startup Blacktop Labs BV. Her company is creating clothes with built-in sensors to monitor fatigue during rehabilitation and athletic training sessions.
By Morten Pedersen
The restless and energetic demeanour which Tanya Colonna applies to the fast-moving medical sector shines through during our interview at the Launch Cafe in Groningen, which is where her medical tech start-up BlackTop Labs is based.
Coming from Cleveland, Ohio, how did you end up in Groningen?
The U.S. start-up scene is very large and the healthcare industry structure makes it difficult to design devices within a clinical environment. The complex cash flow and stakeholder network within the industry makes it very difficult for people who are not connected to large universities and hospitals to enter the start-up scene. This made it difficult to take the first step, as we weren’t sure whether to find funding, develop our product, or both at the same time.
After some time, though we had set up a scattered network, it required too much travel to be sustainable, so we began to look for accelerator programs to develop a central hub for our company and chose to look in other countries as well because of our need for the right environment. We were eventually accepted into the VentureLab North programme here in Groningen. In the end, it actually didn’t feel like a big jump, but more like the natural next step for our business. And now I’ve been here for a year and a half.
Has relocating BlackTop Labs to the North helped, business-wise?
It really has. We have found some really cool partners, both for development and clinical input. This environment has facilitated and enabled the capacity for design that we had been searching for since coming up with our concept. Here, it feels like our supporters actually understand us and see the potential in what we want to make.
What has made the most difference?
The Northern Netherlands’ business ecosystem really helps. It has very well-developed business networks, so it’s easy to find new supporters and get advice from someone that has done it before. The Launch Cafe, VentureLab North, and the International Welcome Center North (IWCN) have all been really good resources. The networking circles are also really small, so you can meet people very efficiently. And our current partners in the Netherlands seem to really understand what our needs are and can see how we can create a mutually beneficial working relationship, whereas many previous attempts at partnerships in the U.S. were abandoned due to clashes of company culture and working structure. People here are happy to be involved in something new and innovative, which makes it really easy to make new connections.
When you first arrived in the north, was there anyone in particular that was very helpful?
I wasn’t expecting any particular help when arriving, so I really threw myself into networking. However, there is quite a long list of people and organisations that have helped me in several ways: the accelerator programme was very helpful in terms of being positive and helping break the first contact barrier. All of the Dutch contacts that I have made speak English, and I’ve found that in business situations, it’s actually more about the content than the language used.
In terms of organisations, when I was trying to settle in in a more general sense, Karen Prowse at the IWCN really helped me settle in, like getting a BSN number, residence permits, a bank account and explaining the process of registering a business. The Launch Cafe was also great with getting a business address and completing the submission for the start-up visa. Finally, VentureLab assisted us in locating a subsidy advisor to complete a grant application from the Northern Netherlands, which gave us extra seed capital.
Aside from in business terms, have you found it easy to meet people otherwise?
Aside from business, it’s been great to experience the community aspect of the North. I started doing sports, including Acro-Yoga (a mixture of acrobatics and yoga). Aside from giving me time to think and unwind, it’s really great to meet a bunch of new people with common interests, especially when business development becomes stressful, and it’s great to have an escape.
Morten Pedersen is a facilitator working on the Make it in the North site. The IWCN is one of The Northern Times’ founding partners.